The Old Man and the Sea

Across the River and Into the Trees (1950) was a flop.  There was no other way to put it.  The great Ernest Hemingway, with hits that included The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), had written a book that was mercilessly panned in over 150 reviews, with some of the reviewers declaring that he was finished as a writer.  Even his wife, Mary (who kept her thoughts to herself at the time), felt that he had written a substandard novel.  His huge ego was badly wounded.

Perhaps the people at Life magazine had not seen the savage reviews because at the same time that the reviews  were being published, they were seriously thinking of devoting an entire issue of Life to a new work by him.  Imagine, their first issue ever dedicated to a new work of fiction, and they were betting on Hemingway.  They approached him about the project, and, as you can imagine, the wounded bull elephant agreed.  He would show them all.  He would write something that would knock the critics flat on their ugly faces.

His contacts at Life told him that they wanted a novella; they didn’t have enough space for a sprawling novel.  Well, he didn’t have a novella, but he assured them that he could write one, and in eight weeks he wrote The Old Man and the Sea.  It would turn out to be the last of his works published during his lifetime.

The Old Man and the Sea in its entirety was published in the September 1, 1952 issue of Life.  Immediately, 5,318,650 copies of the magazine were sold.  It was also a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and did quite well when released as a hardcover book.  But best of all from Hemingway’s point of view, it won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.  Though the Nobel Prize was for his body of work, the official “motivation” that explained why he was being awarded the Prize said that it was “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.”  Hemingway had his revenge.

Old Man and the Sea

In his book Literary Reflections (1993), James A. Michener writes that he was apprised of the Hemingway project by an emissary from Life who found him on the front lines while covering the Korean War.  He was asked if he liked Hemingway, and when he responded that he did, he was asked to read the galleys for Hemingway’s novella, and to write a positive response that could be used for publicity if, and only if, he thought the work was good.  Michener recounts his reaction to the book:

“The next hours were magic.  In a poorly lighted corner of a Marine hut in a remote corner of the South Korea mountains I tore open the package and began reading that inspired account of an old fisherman battling with his great fish and striving to fight off the sharks which were determined to steal it from him.  From Hemingway’s opening words through the quiet climaxes to the organlike coda I was enthralled, but I was so bedazzled by the pyrotechnics that I did not trust myself to write my report immediately after finishing.

“I knew that Hemingway was a necromancer [wizard] who adopted every superior Balzacian trick in the book, each technical device that Flaubert and Tolstoy and Dickens had found useful, so that quite often his work seemed better than it was.  I loved his writing, but he had proved in Across the River and Into the Trees that he could be banal, and I did not want to go out on a limb if he had done so again.

“But as I sat alone in that corner, the galleys pushed far from me as If I wished to be shed of their sorcery, it became overwhelmingly clear that I had been in the presence of a masterpiece.  No other word would do.  The Old Man and the Sea was one of those incandescent miracles that gifted writers can sometimes produce.  (I would learn that Hemingway had dashed it off in complete form in eight weeks without any rewriting.)  And as I reflected on its perfection of form and style I found myself comparing it with those other gemlike novellas that had meant so much to me: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Joseph Conrad’s Youth, Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, and Faulkner’s The Bear.”

Later Michener would similarly be asked to provide a novella for Life magazine.  But that’s a tale for another day, and another post.

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